We can’t recall ever seeing a profile on perennial touring car privateer Bill O’Brien. AMC caught up with O’Brien in Canberra, of course, to hear his story.
We can’t recall ever seeing a profile on perennial touring car privateer Bill O’Brien. AMC caught up with O’Brien in Canberra, of course, to hear the story of his everlasting Bathurst attacks in powder blue.
The powder blue livery. The red EVERLAST signage in upper case type. The frequent “from Canberra” references by commentators. The well-used VL ‘Walkinshaw’ Commodore and XD Falcon. The bruising early 1990s Reid Park encounter that eliminated and angered Dicky Johnson...
Such are the things that leap to mind when perennial privateer Bill O’Brien’s name pops up.
O’Brien was one of the first weekend warriors picked for issue #88’s Top 25 Bathurst privateers feature which listed the Great Race’s most successful, colourful, memorable and prolific part-timers. The short blurb accompanying Bill’s entry read: “The Mountain was habitually cruel to the likes of Bill O’Brien and yet he kept coming back for more.”
That he did. O’Brien’s 18 Bathurst 1000 campaigns between 1979 and 1995 brought a mixed bag of fine finishes, flings with famous faces, fluctuating fortunes, fracas and frightening crashes.
‘Bill O’Brien’ may be a name well known to long-time Bathurst devotees, but it’s also one they know little about beyond the aforementioned basics – which is just how he likes it. Funnily enough, it’s a name that popped up recently when two of his old Fords were auctioned as part of the Harris collection of Group C Bathurst Falcons.
A self-made man, the likeable O’Brien went motor racing on his own terms. There was no ego and really no need for publicity outside the ACT, a combination that led to a low profile. He rarely spoke to the press, except to his local Canberra media.
As a driver he admits he was merely competent, but he had the money to employ quality co-drivers and racecar preparers. Indeed, O’Brien raced alongside some of the greats – Kevin Bartlett, Bob Morris, Allan Moffat, Larry Perkins and his great mate, 1975 Bathurst winner Brian Sampson.
The pickings may have been slim most years, yet there were also three top 10 finishes (the prime privateer team goal) in the ultracompetitive two-decade period he journeyed to Mount Panorama. Those campaigns soon became an October tradition for him – a family affair where the O’Briens were joined by a bunch of loyal friends who each year supported the small team’s efforts.
For the first time – possibly because no one has ever asked before – the straight-shooting O’Brien opens up about his racing career. He explains how the signature ‘Everlast Blue’ came to be and how a true blue Ford man became a Commodore camper via a fl ing with a slinky Skyline.
Two orange coupes
1977 O’Brien bought a clean road-going XB Falcon coupe and built it up to Group C specifications. Initially he gave it to gun driver Kevin Bartlett to develop and race.
“We took it to Sandown for the Hang Ten 400 with Bartlett and Denis O’Brien (no relation) from Wagga Wagga entered for the race. I didn’t even have a racing licence at that stage!”
Only Bartlett would drive the Falcon that day which was soon retired due to engine maladies. As Bartlett was committed to running at Bathurst with Bob Forbes there was no entry for the orange XB for the Mountain classic. In any case, Bartlett and O’Brien soon realised they were at conflicting stages of their respective careers.
“Bartlett had different ideas to what I had in going racing, but we parted as friends,” says O’Brien.
Into 1978 and O’Brien did a few ATCC rounds, and paired with fellow Falcon racer Garry Willmington at Oran Park’s marathon 222-lap Rothmans 500 for a respectable seventh place in the 40-car field.
The Canberran then headed to Bathurst with respected single-seater racer Ray Winter as codriver. Coincidentally, Winter had made a name driving Bartlett’s old “Yellow Submarine” Mildren open-wheeler. Unfortunately, the duo blew an engine in practice on the Mountain and without a spare was unable to qualify for the race.
Chastened, O’Brien was determined never to be underprepared again and went hunting for a better racecar.
Garry Willmington had been involved with a guy named Norm G. Smith who owned massage parlours in Western Sydney. He had bought the ex-Allan Moffat Racing spare XC lightweight coupe and Willmington built it up to race. Willmington then fell out with Smith, who put a couple of Kiwis, Leo Leonard and Gary Sprague, in the car for Bathurst ’78, before putting it on the market. O’Brien quickly snapped it up.
“It had the best of everything. Lots of stuff, including five motors, gearboxes and diffs. I paid $35,000 for the lot. I had more gear than Dick Johnson or Murray Carter who were always borrowing stuff. Ex-Moffat engine guru Peter Molloy built my engines.”
The Everlast team entered selected rounds of the 1979 ATCC with a best finish of fourth at the Lakeside round. That result stands as O’Brien’s best ever solo race finish. For Bathurst he again teamed up with Winters, but, like his fellow Falcon racers, succumbed to the inevitable blown Cleveland after 62 laps.
“We were fighting with (engine) compression. The fuels of the day wouldn’t take it and the standard conrods weren’t up to it. We must have blown up five or six engines until we were eventually permitted to use Carrillo rods”
The Falcon XC raced on into the first half of 1980 with Molloy and former Goss mechanic Grant O’Neill preparing the car. O’Brien then unwittingly fast-tracked himself into the big league.
Defending ATCC champion Bob Morris was unhappy driving the second Craven Mild Commodore and left the team midyear. Molloy set up a deal where Ford provided a new XD Falcon shell, Morris brought his Channel 7 and Breville sponsorship, and O’Brien’s would transplant the XC mechanicals into the XD and prepare it for Bathurst.
“Morris was a quick driver,” Bill O’Brien explains. “About two seconds a lap faster than me. I learnt a lot. He helped me become a quicker driver. I also cross-entered Allan Moffat that year. We got on well. He hadn’t driven my car until the race and didn’t like the set up. He was slower than me. I only got half-a-lap before the engine blew.”
Despite the strong showing – qualifying sixth and running as the top Falcon after Dick Johnson’s rock incident – it was a bittersweet affair for O’Brien.
“The original deal was that after the race the car was to be mine. After all, it was logbooked in my name and I prepared it. But after the race the car was ‘given’ (by Ford) to Morris, he charged me for the car and I paid it. I accepted this as I didn’t want a bad name in the industry.”
The XD Falcon in its distinctive blue hue would be O’Brien’s faithful workhorse up until the end of the Group C era, campaigned at selected ATCC rounds and another four Bathursts. Prepared in his Canberra workshop with mechanics O’Neill and Chris Cullen, O’Brien wisely resisted the temptation to upgrade to XE specification with its troublesome Watt’s linkage rear coil-suspension.
“My ego wasn’t there,” is O’Brien’s sage response. “I was quite happy to be there as a privateer. We couldn’t beat the factory teams.”
O’Brien employed two co-drivers during this time with very different results. In 1981 and ’84 it was Sydneysider Gary Cooke and in 1982-83 it was former Bathurst winner, Brian Sampson.
“Cooke was slower than me and he was hard on the mechanicals. Both races he broke the engine. He wasn’t a smooth driver. In contrast, Brian Sampson was a dream to work with. I was always faster than him but he was good at setting up the car and looking after it in the race. He never bent it.”
For the record O’Brien and ‘Sambo’ finished 20th in 1982 and 19th in 1983 after various minor problems during the race.
Top left: A fit-looking Bill O’Brien today. Below left: O’Brien’s touring car story begins with Sandown in ’77 with Kevin Bartlett behind the wheel of his orange hardtop. Below: Bill’s shot from his Canberra workshop when he transitioned from the XB coupe to lightweight Moffat-built XC.
Main: Having made his Bathurst debut a year earlier, Bill found himself driving with former winners Morris and Moffat in 1980. Subsequent campaigns (above) were lower key affairs.